Sleep has been referred to as the single greatest performance enhancer known to man. Sorry, correction – the single greatest natural performance enhancer. Lance Armstrong and his gang probably have a few more impressive potions tucked into their cycling shorts.
When competing at a high level in a sport like rugby, the difference between scoring that conversion, catching that high ball or making that try-saving tackle, is often little more than a fraction of a second or a fraction of an inch. It can often be difficult to understand what makes the difference between too seemingly equally matched players or teams.
Pundits will sit until the cows come home discussing tactics, debating training regimes and even deliberating on the role of luck. What they will very rarely, if ever, mention is sleep. After a missed drop goal attempt it’s very rare to hear the commentator say, ‘if only he’d gone to bed earlier last night’.
This omission just reflects an overall ignorance society as a whole has when it comes to the importance of sleep. Few people realise that how we sleep affects almost every single aspect of our physical and mental performance. Well, that’s about to be remedied, read on below to find out why good sleep is vital for any sportsman and especially rugby players.
When players are putting in the hard hours in the gym or hitting bags in training, it’s not actually this time spent sweating that builds muscles and sharpens skills. No, in fact when players are engaged in this high-intensity physical activity they are actually causing micro-tears to their muscle fibre. It’s only when at rest while sleeping, that these fibres are repaired by the body and reinforced.
It’s this fact that makes sleep an essential component to any training regime. Hours spent lifting weights or miles clocked on the bike are nothing if players don’t allow their bodies sufficient time to make repairs. In fact, intensive training is actually worse than no training at all if it isn’t met with a reciprocal increase in downtime.
If you’re an aspiring rugby player trying to find extra time in your day to fit in more training around your regular life, the one thing you should never do is cut down on your sleep. You should be looking to do the exact opposite. Break up with your partner, throw away your XBox, skip the session with the lads, but don’t give up sleep.
Instead of that extra hour in the gym, maybe invest in something better to sleep on instead.
Sleep and injury
As I’m sure you’ve noticed watching any rugby match, the human body is a pretty resilient thing. Players can take a hell of a beating and still come up looking for more. But there are of course limits to how much strain any individual can take before it begins to fail and break. To remain injury free for longer, conditioning is key for any player. Central to maintaining conditioning is rest.
Researchers looking at performance amongst top-level athletes have found that the single most reliable predictor of injury is not how much training an individual got but how much sleep they get. Or don’t as the case may be.
One particular study tracked American football players, which is kind of like rugby but complicated by too many rules. It was found that players who slept for less than 8 hours a night were much more likely to get injured than athletes that did. Simple as that.
While we sleep, our body repairs itself. During deep wave, sleep human growth hormone is released which triggers the body to go to work on any areas of injury or preserved weakness. If our sleep is cut short, or broken, then this process is interrupted and significantly impaired. It’s kind of like if a formula one car drove away from a pit stop before the wheel nuts were tightened.
Sleep and performance
Throw your mind back to the last time you had a bad night’s rest, think for a second about your decision making and reaction times. I bet they weren’t too impressive now were they? Now imagine a 18 stone prop charging at you like a runaway train. Cian Healy at full speed for instance. Yep, now you get the idea.
When we sleep badly our cognitive performance takes a massive dive. Unrested, players become less accurate, make worse decisions and respond more sluggishly to external stimuli. Three things very important for a rugby player I’m sure you will agree?
The impact missed sleep can have on performance really depends on how much sleep the player has missed and over what period of time. Just to give a glimpse of how dramatic even a few hours of missed sleep can be, studies have shown that one bad night’s rest could impact a player’s performance more than being legally drunk. Yikes!
You wouldn’t put up with the boys turning up at Croke Park to play after a skinful, would you? Well, it could be preferable to them turning up after a bad night’s kip.
Well, there you have it – the importance of sleep to the game of rugby. And we didn’t even get into what happens if the coach or referees didn’t have a good night’s rest before the big match.
Sarah Cummings, Sleep Advisor.